The University of South Florida battled the second-coldest temperatures it’s ever faced, but an impressive 48-37 win at Pittsburgh may have brightened its future.
Finishing the regular season with three straight wins, the Bulls are likely headed to El Paso, Texas to play in the Sun Bowl on Dec. 31.
A trip to one of the Big East’s more prestigious bowl games seemed unlikely after USF fell from No. 2 in the country out of the Top 25 with consecutive losses to Rutgers, Connecticut and Cincinnati by a combined 15 points.
Behind a three-game win streak to close out the regular season, the Bulls climbed back into the rankings, all the way to No. 21 when the latest BCS rankings were released Sunday.
“I’m really proud of how resilient this group has been,” USF coach Jim Leavitt said. “We had a bunch of near misses in the middle of our schedule that led to three close losses, but we bounced back to play some of our best football of the season.”
Facing 35-degree weather at kickoff, the Bulls scored 38 points in the second half against Pittsburgh’s nationally ninth-ranked defense.
The win was the first in school history in 45 degrees or below.
Trailing 14-10 after two quarters, quarterback Matt Grothe’s 80-yard touchdown run provided USF (9-3, 4-3) a lead it wouldn’t relinquish Saturday.
“Pitt overreacted a little bit at the snap of the ball, and everything just kind of came together from there,” Grothe said. “I got some good blocks at the line of scrimmage and some good blocks down field, and fortunately I was able to take the ball 80 yards for a score.”
The one play left a crowd of 31,123 at Heinz Field stunned and immediately gave USF the momentum.
“It’s disappointing, the way the game unfolded. I really thought we were focused to start the game and at halftime,” Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt said. “And then we went out there in the second half and gave up the one play on defense, and offensively just came totally unglued.”
From there, the defense took over, forcing three turnovers and shutting down the Panthers’ (4-7, 2-4) rushing attack.
Trae Williams and Nate Allen each scored a touchdown off an interception, while linebacker Ben Moffitt picked off another pass and returned it to the one-yard line, and freshman Mike Ford punched in the score.
“To be able to put up basically 21 points on defense is a big thrill for us,” Moffitt, a senior, said. “We pride ourselves on being able to change games, and you saw that we were able to do that today. We’re not happy with just getting our hands on the ball. Every time we touch it, we’re looking to score.”
Panthers running back LeSean McCoy finished with a season-low 55 yards rushing. With his three touchdowns, however, he surpassed the school freshman record of 13 set by Tony Dorsett in 1973.
In the first half, the Bulls’ offense struggled to get anything going until a trick play on special teams jumpstarted the team.
Linebacker Sam Miller took a direct snap when USF was in punt formation and ran 29 yards to set up Ford’s first touchdown of the game.
“When I heard the play call, I was very excited to run the fake punt,” Miller said. “We had practiced it all week and I knew it was going to work.”
The ninth win of the season equals a school record (2002, 2006) and a bowl win would set the all-time mark and be the first 10-win season in the Bulls 11-year history.
West Virginia’s 66-21 victory over Connecticut enabled the Bulls to become the second-highest ranked team in the conference and Sun Bowl officials said they would take the team with the top ranking.
Since the match-up will be against a team from the Pacific 10, if USF is selected, it would likely play No. 13 Arizona State, No. 18 Oregon or unranked California.
The Mountaineers clinched a berth in a BCS bowl by winning the Big East Championship, and if they defeat Pittsburgh in next weekend’s “Backyard Brawl” will likely play in the national championship game.
The other possibilities for USF include returning to the Meineke Car Care Bowl, where it lost to North Carolina State in 2005, the Papajohns.com Bowl, which it won in 2006, or the International Bowl in Toronto.
The Sun Bowl has the first selection to find a participant for its game, followed by the Meineke Car Care Bowl and the International and Papajohns.com Bowls share the final selections.
Bowl invitations are expected to be announced as early as Wednesday and the third consecutive outing with at least 41 points has the Bulls now fighting with Cincinnati for an official invitation to the Sun Bowl.
“I think they controlled the play pretty much throughout the first half, and the score that resulted from the fake punt kept us in the game,” Grothe said. “We were able to come out after that and play exceptionally well on both sides of the ball and get the momentum back.”